Thursday, February 28, 2013

One Ring to Rule Them All

I know Conor Friedersdorf means well; his writing positively oozes well-meaningness.  He's concerned, he says, that "the news media does a terrible job reporting on the people whose opposition to gay marriage isn't rooted in bigotry."  I wouldn't be surprised if that was true, since the corporate media generally do a terrible job of reporting on almost everything.  The piece is a marvel of liberal false-equivalence, that one wouldn't want to say that one side in a dispute is simply wrong; that wouldn't do.  The trouble is, Friedersdorf doesn't give any examples of arguments against same-sex marriage that aren't rooted in bigotry.  He does gesture toward a New York Times column by Ross Douthat, which I'll consider here as I proceed.

Friedersdorf is too young to remember the glory days of Jim Crow in the United States, which is probably why he misses the raging irony in this recollection:
How would I defend the proposition that gay rights are a civil-rights issue? As a kid at a mostly white elementary school with a few Latinos and Asians but no blacks, I was taught about MLK and Rosa Parks, who were presented as heroes on the order of George Washington. The Cosby Show shaped my notion of what black people were like. Racists were synonymous with bad people. It would've been unthinkable for one of my classmates to use the n-word.
It appears that Friedersdorf thinks "civil rights" means "black people's rights."  Well, he's far from alone in that.  But since he begins from that popular but fundamental error, it's no wonder his article makes little sense.

No doubt there were many white moderate journalists in the 1950s and 1960s who felt the same dilemma: how to cover the struggle of black people for equal treatment under the law without, at the same time, treating those who opposed that struggle as bad people?  This is especially difficult if you've defined "racist" to refer only to ugly, big-bellied Alabama cops and sneering old men with thick Southern accents who flaunt their subhumanity with pride
KLAN SPEAKER: They want to throw white children and colored children into the melting pot of integration, through out of which will come a conglomerated mulatto mongrel class of people ... Both races will be destroyed in such a movement. I, for one, under God, will die before I’ll yield one inch for that kind of a movement.
If people like that are what you mean by "racists," then you'll have no idea how to deal with nice people who want everybody to get along, who deplore those low-class rednecks, but who insist silkily that The Negro isn't ready for his rights.  Maybe he will be someday, but it would just overturn the foundations of Western civilization if we pretended he's equal when he's ... well ... not.  And we'd be doing The Negro no favor by pushing him prematurely into a forced equality he just isn't ready for.  I can't tell from his column what, specifically, Friedersdorf would consider real antigay bigotry.  I'm sure it would include the Westboro Baptist Church and similar safe targets, the kind of awful, hateful people that even bigots like Jerry Falwell and Pope Benedict could denounce.

Friedersdorf is certain that people like Douthat or Dreher are "all as horrified as anyone by bigotry, persecution, and violence directed at gays."  I'm certain of that too, but how often do they write columns in which they declare that horror assertively, instead of as a prelude to opposing any action against "bigotry, persecution, and violence directed at gays"?  I don't follow these writers, but I've often been in a position to ask self-styled non-bigots what kind of countermeasures they propose against bigotry, persecution, and violence against gays.  They never have any answers beyond some vague feel-good, airy-fairy hand-waving: Let people know that they'd better not pick on each other for any reason, or else.

When I consider what Friedersdorf considers a non-bigoted argument against same-sex marriage -- the Ross Douthat column linked above -- I find it even harder to take Friedersdorf seriously.  Douthat begins by dismissing the "commonplace arguments" about the supposedly millennia-old "definition" of marriage as one man and one woman, "These arguments have lost because they’re wrong," Douthat says. "What we think of as 'traditional marriage' is not universal. The default family arrangement in many cultures, modern as well as ancient, has been polygamy, not monogamy."  Good enough.  What does he have to offer instead of these commonplaces?
It’s a particular vision of marriage, rooted in a particular tradition, that establishes a particular sexual ideal. 

This ideal holds up the commitment to lifelong fidelity and support by two sexually different human beings — a commitment that involves the mutual surrender, arguably, of their reproductive self-interest — as a uniquely admirable kind of relationship. It holds up the domestic life that can be created only by such unions, in which children grow up in intimate contact with both of their biological parents, as a uniquely admirable approach to child-rearing. And recognizing the difficulty of achieving these goals, it surrounds wedlock with a distinctive set of rituals, sanctions and taboos. 

The point of this ideal is not that other relationships have no value, or that only nuclear families can rear children successfully. Rather, it’s that lifelong heterosexual monogamy at its best can offer something distinctive and remarkable — a microcosm of civilization, and an organic connection between human generations — that makes it worthy of distinctive recognition and support. 
This ideal, Douthat claims, is "a particularly Western understanding, derived from Jewish and Christian beliefs about the order of creation, and supplemented by later ideas about romantic love, the rights of children, and the equality of the sexes."  Of course, as he is careful not to acknowledge, the Jewish part of those beliefs was not monogamous, and the Christian part came from pagan Roman customs of marriage, nothing specifically Christian.  (Even more fun, "romantic love" has its roots in Greek pederasty.)  And it's "later ideas about ... the equality of the sexes" that have undermined traditional marriage, paving the way for the serial monogamy punctuated by no-fault divorce that Douthat deplores elsewhere in his column.  "Traditional" stability of monogamous heterosexual marriage depended on depriving women of other choices, and usually an explicit sexual double standard.  Once women had the freedom to get out of bad marriages, they voted with their feet in great numbers.  Which connects to something else: Douthat ignores the denigration of marriage that has characterized much of the Western Christian tradition, since the New Testament.  It hasn't been obvious that marriage was an ideal estate for human beings at all.

Something else peeks out from Douthat's argument, something that is visible in many arguments against "redefining" marriage.  Douthat especially leaves himself open to to demolition, since he disavows any claim that other kinds of relationships are valueless, or that only heterosexual couples can raise children successfully.  He gives no evidence that "the domestic life that can be created only by such unions, in which children grow up in intimate contact with both of their biological parents, as a uniquely admirable approach to child-rearing", probably because there isn't any.  If, as he claims, monogamous heterosexual marriage "is worthy of distinctive recognition and support," then he ought to be more vocal about the current economic conditions that make this model increasingly insupportable, though it was always at best an ideal, not a living reality for most people.

But the important thing is that legalizing civil marriage between same-sex couples does not withdraw support and recognition from mixed couples: it does not abolish heterosexual marriage.  Nor is the Washington Post carrying attacks on the legitimacy of monogamous heterosexual marriage: if it now includes announcements of the coupling of same-sex couples, it has not banished heterosexual couples' announcements of their engagements and weddings and anniversaries.  When opponents of same-sex marriage talk about it "redefining" marriage, this is what they mean as subtext: marriage will be "redefined" as homosexual marriage, and heterosexuals will be forced to gay-marry.  (A similar dog-whistle underlay opposition to "interracial" marriage, back in the day: racial equality will lead inexorably to a "conglomerated mulatto mongrel class of people"; see the Klan member quoted above.)  Same-sex marriage won't devalue monogamous heterosexual marriage; if anything, most advocates of same-sex marriage naively gloss over the pitfalls and disadvantages of heterosexual marriage.  Despite his disclaimer, Douthat can't imagine that different forms of family and marriage can coexist in one society: even to permit any alternative, in his mind, is to exalt that alternative over all the others.  That makes no sense, but it reveals his unspoken assumptions.

This is why I prefer Nancy Polikoff's argument, in Beyond (Straight and Gay) Marriage (Beacon, 2008), that a wide variety of family types should receive social support, not only marriage-based families.  (One of the negative aspects of the "marriage equality" movement is its disdain for people who choose, for whatever reason, not to marry.)  It's not the place of the State to give exclusive, or even preferential, support to one kind of family, especially for purely religious reasons.  But even if the State decides to exalt monogamous heterosexual marriage as the ideal relationship, that's no excuse to refuse support to other relationships.  (Denying support and recognition to children who 'chose' unmarried parents is especially inhumane.)  But that is what the "conservatives" want.  If some subgroups of citizens choose monogamous heterosexual marriage as their lifestyle, nothing will prevent them from doing so.  If it really is superior to other kinds of family, that superiority should become apparent soon enough.  But Douthat and his ilk won't settle for that: they want everyone to be forced to recognize their preferred lifestyle as the best and therefore only option.  Maybe that's not bigotry, but it'll do until real bigotry comes along.